The Best Books of 2014
In the opening sentence of Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstruck & Other Stories, we meet the ill-tempered child-ghost of Missy Goodby, who "sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace.... Late at night when you walk your dog and feel suddenly cold, and then unsure of yourself, and then loathed by the world, that's Missy Goodby, too." All nine tales in this bewitching and wise collection ruminate on loss, yet manage to be playful, even joyful.
McCracken's characters lead lives as cluttered as our own ("Too much cleanliness made a place dead," observes a woman who designs museum exhibits)—and like us, they strive to clear away the excess from the essential.
In "Property," a man moves into a rented house after the death of his wife and tries to act "as though he were not an insane person with one single thought"; he hates everything in the new place, including a bath mat that "looked made of various flavors of old chewing gum." Only when he is moving out does he wake up enough to realize that the objects left for him were the landlord's best things, placed there to give him comfort.
McCracken's descriptions can strike like a match. In "Hungry," we meet Sylvia, a grandmother who "was a bright, cellophane-wrapped hard candy of a person: sweet, but not necessarily what a child wanted." Elsewhere in the story, Sylvia speculates on the appearance of her neighbor, wondering "whether Mrs. Tillman had had a stroke; then she saw that she'd merely applied her lipstick off-center."
McCracken plays life, with its quirks and surprises, against plain, dampening death. It's not a battle between the two, though. Life occupies the stage, while death waits its turn. Her characters endure losses and become wiser or crazier (or both), but always more open to kindness and love.